The battle for northern Mexico: border states check president’s electoral power
Increasingly assertive regional powers in the north have combined with scandals and incidents of violence to create a difficult environment for Andrés Manuel López Obrador in upcoming elections
The symbol of an eagle devouring a snake is familiar from Mexico’s national flag, but at this rally it sits on a version that is bright orange, bearing the legend Movimiento del norte (Movement of the north). Standing next to the poster, five candidates declare what makes northern Mexico different to the rest of the country.
We are standing on the terrace of a convention center in San Pedro Garza García, an upscale area of Mexico’s third-largest city, Monterrey, from where a row of skyscrapers stretches into the horizon. This area is the richest in Latin America, according to the credit rating agency Fitch, with a GDP per capita of US$60,000 from figures published in 2019.
”We will never allow those in the center [of the country] to mistreat us, for those in the center to tell us what to do, and we will certainly not allow them to interfere with our land,” said Samuel García, a gubernatorial candidate for the state of Nuevo Léon, a powerhouse of the Mexican economy. At 33, García is a key face in Movimiento Ciudadano (Citizens’ Movement), which has spent the last decade trying to break apart Mexico’s traditional party system. His wife is the popular influencer and businesswoman Mariana Rodríguez, pushing his message on social media and making him a minor sensation ahead of June 6 legislative elections. Half of the country’s governorships, its parliament and thousands of local officials will be elected.
Although García has made a splash, his success also has much to do with revelations that Clara Luz Flores, the candidate of the ruling National Regeneration Movement (Morena), was caught on video speaking to the leader of the NXIVM sect, Keith Raniere, five years ago. Raniere was sentenced last year to 120 years in jail on charges of racketeering, sex trafficking and child pornography offenses. She had always denied the conversation ever took place, and the release of the tape caused her popularity to nosedive after leading the polls for weeks.
Flores was previously a member of the opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), but broke with the formation after Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador reached out to offer her the nomination, noting her success as the former mayor of General Escobedo, also in the Monterrey metropolitan area.
Nuevo León state contributes the most to Mexico’s GDP after Mexico City, but the president has long been seen as distant and cold towards the north. This, combined with the cult leader scandal means that Morena’s chances now seem slim in Nuevo Léon. It is not the only border state haemorrhaging support for the ruling party. In the state of Sonora, in northwest Mexico, a local Movimiento Ciudadano candidate was recently murdered in a hail of gunfire. The death opened a conversation about electoral violence that threatens the once assured candidacy of Alfonso Durazo, a former security minister in the current government. Opinion polls in Chihuahua, a third border state in contention, do not show a convincing victory for the ruling party, leaving Baja California the only northern state that Morena seems certain to win.
”Today, Movimiento Ciudadano is becoming the pre-eminent political force in Nuevo León. We have an irreversible lead,” said Clemente Castañeda, the party’s leader, referring to García and Luis Donaldo Colosio, the party’s mayoral candidate for Monterrey. These claims remain to be seen, as the PRI, headed by Adrián de la Garza, remains a force to be reckoned with. Movimiento Ciudadano, which only governs in Jalisco state, lacks the grassroots structures of the older opposition group. Meanwhile, both De la Garza and García are being investigated by the Attorney General’s office for separate alleged offenses. De la Garza is accused of vote buying, while García allegedly received illicit contributions to his campaign. Whoever may win the north, what is clear is that regionalism has become a hot-button issue, and it works in both directions. While voters in border states may feel that Mexico City and López Obrador have turned their backs on them, those from further south sometimes see the north as offering an alternative to the lure of the capital.
Elber Martínez was born in the central state of Hidalgo 30 years ago. He tried to find a job in Mexico City at the end of 2019, but failed to do so and moved to Monterrey instead. Within two days he had found a job as a substitute teacher for third grade children, and is now finishing his studies while also working as a waiter. “This is the best of Mexico. It’s either here or the United States,” said Martínez. He cannot vote as he is still registered back home, but if he had the option his ballot would be cast for García, he said, owing to his image as a reform candidate who understands young people.
López Obrador has not yet reached the halfway point of his six-year term but he has succeeded in becoming the center of all political attention
Just as the north drifts away from the rest of the country, Morena has redoubled its popularity elsewhere. Even a rape accusation did not stop a ruling party candidate in Guerrero state from receiving the president’s full backing and maintaining his popularity. He was later disqualified from running on other grounds. That said, the hypothetical triumph of Movimiento Ciudadano in Nuevo León would have an impact on a national scale, as a major secondary opposition looming over the remainder of the current government’s term. If PRI achieves victory with Adrián de la Garza, however, he would become the de facto leader of a disjointed opposition without some of the figures who have made the president’s life difficult since being elected in 2018.
López Obrador has not yet reached the halfway point of his six-year term but he has succeeded in becoming the center of all political attention, and free to set the agenda. From the pulpit of his morning press conferences, the president has always delivered a vision of a Mexico divided into “conservative party” adversaries, used to describe all critical voices, and his allies. To the list of conservatives can now be added northern Mexico. “I hope Morena wins absolutely nothing here to send the message that the north has woken up,” said García.
The bickering between Mexico City and the north is also on full display in the border state of Tamaulipas, where the national leader of the ruling party was intimidated by an armed group in the city of Matamoros. Federal and state authorities have clashed over the fate of Tamaulipas governor Francisco García Cabeza de Vaca, a member of the opposition National Action Party (PAN). García Cabeza de Vaca was stripped of his official immunity from prosecution weeks ago by Mexico’s parliament so that the Attorney General’s Office could proceed with an investigation into an alleged money laundering scandal. The Tamaulipas state legislature responded by rejecting that decision until a judge ordered his arrest. That decision was then suspended by another judge. The PAN describes the investigation of the governor as political persecution, while the president has urged the judicial system to resolve the case as soon as possible.
The accusations center on whether Cabeza de Vaca amassed undeclared properties in Mexico and the United States, and despite evidence gathered by the Mexican authorities, other opposition parties have also rejected the investigation as “political lynching orchestrated by the government.” For Mexico’s president, however, it’s another case of corruption of the kind he was elected to root out.